Find all of our Election 2020 coverage and other candidate interviews here. More interviews will be added as the election draws closer. Click here to read our conversation with James’ opponent, Democrat Gary Peters.
The Republican Senate candidate in Michigan shares some links with the Jewish community.
During their junior year of high school in the summer of 1998 at the Michigan Chapter of Boys State, a model government leadership program for teens, John James, who is Black, and Jeffrey Green, who is Jewish, became fast friends.
During the program, Green, a delegate for Okemos High School, was elected secretary of state, and James, a delegate from Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, was elected governor.
Though the program only lasted a week, James and Green’s friendship has endured several decades; both have served as best man in the other’s wedding, and James is now the godfather to Green’s children.
And this year, as James makes a run for Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ seat, Green is reminded once again of the duo’s early high school political ambitions.
“We wanted to change the world and had all the plans to do so,” said Green, who now lives in Sylvania, Ohio. “So, it’s really fun to see what he is doing now.”
The current race is not James’ first encounter with politics since high school. In 2018, he ran against U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and lost by 6.5 points.
Recent polls show James trailing Peters by as little as one point. But as police brutality protests and the COVID-19 pandemic preoccupy the country, James, the Iraq War veteran and Detroit businessman, is campaigning in an unexpected political battleground. He is also the only Black Republican candidate currently running for Senate in the country, endorsed by a Republican presidential incumbent who has called the Black Lives Matter organization “a symbol of hate.”
Despite his associations with the president, James believes his message of unity for all races, creeds and religions will speak to Michiganders. And though the Jewish population doesn’t typically comprise much of the Republican vote in Michigan, some make generous donations to the GOP, and several belong to James’ inner and campaign circles.
Bridging the Bipartisan Gap
Bipartisanship often permeates James’ Jewish friendships. In Farmington Hills, James lives across the street from Florine Mark, a prominent Jewish businesswoman and CEO of the WW Group. James says although Mark is a staunch Gary Peters supporter, she still invites his children to swim in her pool. He says his many connections to the Jewish community don’t strike him as “weird or different.”
“I’m honored to count members of the Jewish community among our grassroots supporters at all levels,” he said. “The community is well represented, not just in my campaign but in my normal everyday life.”
James also claimed that he and Mark have had family dinners together, but Mark told the JN that wasn’t true. However, she said their interactions have been pleasant.
“He’s a nice man,” Mark said of James. “We don’t really talk politics.”
Mark had put a Gary Peters sign on her lawn for a few days, but then took it down: “It wasn’t the right thing to do,” she said. “I respect John and I just didn’t want to embarrass him.”
James, a West Point graduate raised by Democratic parents in Detroit, returned to Michigan after serving eight years in the U.S. Army during the Iraq War. There, he flew the Apache helicopters that now famously adorn his campaign signs. In 2012, James joined his family’s business, James Group International, a logistics and supply chain management firm in Detroit. For two years, Green worked for the company as well.
And when James decided to run for senate in 2018, Green, despite being a Democrat, was an obvious pick for the role of informal campaign adviser.
“Our relationship transcends politics,” said Green. “It’s important to always have somebody on your side who knows who you are, someone who understands you and cares for you, and I’m that for John.”
This year, however, Green has decided to take a back seat. Despite their diverging politics, he feels that James has the capacity to bridge the partisan gap.
The Jewish Vote
Historically, the majority of the Jewish community votes overwhelmingly democratic in Michigan and the country. This year, 66% of Jews identified as Democrats, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute.
While Jewish Republicans in Michigan are slight in numbers, Stu Sandler, a general political consultant who works with the James campaign, and the former deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, believes a sizable sect of the Jewish community is open to voting for James.
Some of James’s prominent supporters are Jewish, including former Michigan Republican Party Chairs Robert Schostak and Ron Weiser, and Michigan businessman Sheldon Yellen.
James also has the potential to connect with Jewish voters through his pro-Israel stances, according to Sandler. James says he supports the current administration’s proposal for a two-state solution and opposes all forms of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“There must be no space between the United States and our ally Israel,” James said. “We must protect our allies.”
Peters, who cosponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act of 2017, holds similar views, however, and one partisan Jewish political action committee, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, is already rallying around the incumbent senator.
Recently, that same group released an advertisement labeling James as an antisemite, referencing an incident where a tiny swastika appeared in his 2018 campaign ad, and a comment on a television interview where James said underrepresented African Americans “need to make sure that we force both parties to treat us the way they’re genuflecting for working class white males and for our Jewish friends.”
His own Jewish friends say the accusations against James are outrageous. “Never have I ever felt an ounce of antisemitism in John’s body,” said Green.
James has publicly apologized for the swastika incident, which he says was an oversight on behalf of his media company who used stock footage of a school hallway for the ad.
“I apologize to anybody whom I may have hurt, because personally that doesn’t represent me,” he said. “The swastika is an evil symbol that only should be remembered so it never gets repeated.”
As for the genuflection comment, James, while not addressing the word’s connotations, says he meant it as a compliment to the Jewish people. The Jewish community and women in particular, he says, have worked hard to hold both the Democratic and Republican parties accountable to their vote in a way he wishes the Black community would.
“I think that the African American community would do well to demand the same accountability from our politicians,” he said.
On BLM and Antisemitism
Donald Trump’s pro-Israel policies do not take precedent over domestic security for a number of Jewish voters. Many are concerned with the president’s alleged stoking of antisemitism by failing to forthrightly condemn far-right extremist groups.
On Sept. 23, the Washington Post reported that Trump muttered Jews “are only in it for themselves” after phone calls with Jewish lawmakers.
The James campaign has seen its own share of criticism in this field. In late August, James spoke at an event put on by the Antrim County Conservative Union. Members of the far-right group Proud Boys, which has been linked to antisemitic activity and which Trump did not forthrightly condemn during the first presidential debate Sept. 29, volunteered to work that event.
James himself says he doesn’t think the president is antisemitic, but he can only comment on his own beliefs.
“I can’t speak for President Trump, nor will I try,” he said. “But I will speak for myself that I hate bigotry in all of its forms.”
James has had his own distinct encounters with bigotry as a Black man in the U.S. On Sept. 10, he attended Trump’s campaign rally in Freeland, Mich., and told the audience of 5,000 about a time he feared for his life while getting pulled over by police with one of his young sons in the backseat.
“I spoke about things in front of a crowd that was mostly white, some things that they’d never potentially heard before,” he said. “And we got cheers for that.”
The president has offered his “total and complete” endorsement for James that day as well. But Trump has also called the Black Lives Matter organization “bad for Black people.” Though James says both the Democratic and Republican Parties haven’t done enough for Black voters, he holds conflicted views on the movement.
James said, “Of course I believe that Black lives matter. I’m a Black man.” But he says the Black Lives Matter movement has been “hijacked by leftists.”
“I do not believe that it honors the sacrifices of the civil rights leaders who came before us, nor does it shed a positive light on George Floyd’s death,” he said.
In a statement from his campaign, James said that as a Black man and officer, he understands both sides of the debate. To the public, he has denounced proposals to defund police departments and says he supports “increased training and increased transparency.”
Regardless of the current movement’s goals, James says Jewish people have been marching beside African Americans in the fight for equality since the civil rights era. As the nation experiences antisemitic and racial violence once again, the communities are only becoming closer, he believes.
James says he plans on using every platform available to promote these words of unity.
“I think that’s a message that will hopefully resonate with all communities, especially the Jewish community,” he said.
While his associations with President Trump concern members of both of these groups, James stands to benefit from any success the Republican presidential candidate finds in Michigan, especially as people take advantage of straight-ticket voting passed through Michigan’s 2018 Proposal 3.
Schostak feels the support between candidates goes both ways.
“Always the top of the ticket matters,” he said. “But John himself has got tremendous name ID. I think he both helps President Trump and President Trump helps him.”
Even though she is his neighbor, Mark said she doesn’t know enough about James politically to know whether he would be a “team player.”
“I can’t speak to what John James is,” she said. “I don’t know what his work is and what he’s done, because he doesn’t tell us.”
Although Green hopes to see his friend win, he admits that the vote would be a difficult choice for him if he still lived in Michigan. This year is “exceedingly nasty,” he says, due to extreme divisiveness between political parties.
Green says he’s always believed James to be more middle-of-the-road than what the Republican Party asks of him. But when someone runs for office, he says, oftentimes they have to take on a persona.
Still, Green thinks James is his own man. He believes he has the ability to connect with all kinds of people, regardless of race, religion, and socioeconomic status.
“As a person, the issues are more important to John than the party,” said Green. “Where I think John can do very well is when he’s the real John James.”
Click here to read the transcript of the full Jewish News election interview with James.
Correction (10/13/20): A previous version of this story stated that members of the Proud Boys volunteered at a James campaign event. In fact, they volunteered at an event put on by a local conservative group that hosted James.
Update (10/15/20): This story has been updated with an interview with James’ neighbor, Florine Mark.